On Talking to Students: Writing Centers, “Cop Shit,” and Sanctuary Spaces

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“Cop Shit Doesn’t Build Community”

In his keynote at Digitial Pedagogy Lab 2020, Jesse Stommel said:

There has been much talk over the last several months about maintaining ‘continuity’ of instruction and assessment, but less discussion about how we maintain the communities at the heart of our educational institutions.  That is the design challenge before us.

A few months ago, also using Stommel’s work, I set out to document some issues with schools and districts near-religious devotions to the LMS of their choice: the primary goal, the foundational entry point, seemed to be control and compliance—students turning in assignments—rather than anything related to their critical care.  Additionally, little attempt was made to build the LMS in a way that supported all of connective tissue of schools, which largely happen outside of strict structures, including the classroom itself.  When policing exceeds critical care and collaborative community building and sustenance as a core value, you get what Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” which I was happy to see in Stommel’s keynote.  From Moro:

Cop shit undoubtedly reaches its sine qua non in the K-12 classroom, particularly given how such classrooms are even more militarized (actual cops, metal detectors, education premised on compliance, etc.) than higher ed. While I was getting my hair cut yesterday, my stylist told me about her daughter’s math teacher, who is currently punishing her daughter for falling behind on work due to a broken arm by assigning her upwards of fifteen pages of homework a night. The child is seven. This is pure, uncut cop shit.

Before we say that this story is an exception to the rule, there was a recent Twitter thread that attempted to grapple with the excitement many teachers felt now that “accountability” was coming back this fall: grades, synchronous class time, attendance.  “Cop shit” is one thing that we can count on trickling down.  It’s hard to see some colleagues rely on these measures in their teaching; they need control—bodily control—of their students to be able to engage them in learning.  The “online learning doesn’t work” choruses have roots here: if learning is directly mediated by an adult presence enforcing rules, then it’s not really learning.  This spring, some folks found out that their classroom communities were really just loose confederations held together by rules that kids were too scared to break or say anything about out of fear.  Those loose confederations certainly weren’t co-created with students, especially those students pushed to the margins of our schools.

Long story short: it’s only a matter of time until etiquette “tutorials” like the one below are all over the socials setting up systems to hurt those who are already marginalized and vulnerable.

There’s also reason to be worried that a hyperfocus on content, especially given the narrative that “kids are falling behind,” will cause us to rush in and leave the work of critical care behind: there will still be time for teaching students to write a claim or assess rhetoric or analyze evidence.  Manufactured crises, like the idea of “being behind,” takes our eyes off the really, really important work of cultivating hope and providing safety.  I’m seeing this happen in the writing center sphere where there are webinars about synchronous and asynchronous tutoring or developing online tutor training and almost nothing about how we’re prioritizing care and helping our students build sanctuary spaces, as students continue to navigate a global health crisis, ongoing racism and state violence, ICE deportations, anti-Semitism, and mounting economic losses.  If your writing center is worried about being online but hasn’t yet addressed the multiple threats to the most vulnerable students, I’d argue that you’re thinking in reverse.  I’d also say that I don’t necessarily care about the former until we address the latter.  Here’s Sean Michael Morris’ take:

Rather than connectedness, administrators and instructors (and those supporting their work) have focused on connectivity, worrying more about the technology they use than the human being they are trying to reach.

He later writes:

But it goes without saying that sustaining a classroom community is an essential act during a time of crisis. It is in crisis that we most immediately front with our human capacity to intervene, to grasp our agency—to be learners. When we are faced with feeling there is nothing we can do, we can ask: what has been done, what could have been done… which leads us to ask what can I do, and what will I do?

We’re so worried about the how—we’re desperately looking for the model or that tech trick—that we’re forgetting the who.  This doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place, but the end results of this thinking can be dangerous for those who are already in danger.

So, back to Stommel’s keynote and, arguably, his best piece of advice:

Stop looking for models and begin by talking to students.

On Sanctuary: Writing Centers and a Pedagogy of Critical Care

I’ve been thinking about the idea of sanctuary for a long time, although not always in those terms, but I knew it was important for any kind of learning environment.  I first started attaching the word sanctuary to how and what I was feeling after reading Be Oakley’s “Radical Softness is Boundless Form of Resistance:”

I look to the sanctuary that are built within each of our communities that provide a certain aspect of comfort for the people directly involved with them.

When I first started out teaching and leading a writing center, I thought that I was responsible for setting up a sanctuary, and no doubt that my voice and presence matter, but I realized that unless students co-created the environments with me, I wasn’t really creating a sanctuary, I was creating my idea of what I thought a sanctuary should be.  That’s some cop shit; I’m not at the center of the classroom or the writing center, and the faster I realized that, the better off everyone would be, particularly those that don’t share in all of my privileged identities.  Here’s Oakley:

I don’t feel that any space marked ‘safe’ by a white person, even if they have the best intentions, can ever be truly safe for those who are not white.

Oakley goes on to say that this doesn’t mean white people don’t have a gigantic role to play in making spaces safer, but that we should ask those most impacted what sanctuary looks like, feels like, and is to them.  As Press Press’ sanctuary manifesto says:

Sanctuary is different for different people.  Whatever version of sanctuary we create needs to be malleable and accommodating of those different versions.  Many versions of sanctuary can exist simultaneously.

I read this to mean that our role, before we can even think about pedagogical models or the latest LMS hack or our digital tutoring methods, is to talk with our students and have our students talk with each other about what sanctuary looks like for them and find ways to meaningfully link those visions together, which means embracing tension.  If our students aren’t co-creating the space, virtual or physical, with us, then we’re just reinforcing the cop shit because, as Moro says, we’re setting up a necessarily adversarial relationship with and between our students rather than a generative one.

Avoiding the reproduction of the things we seek to avoid requires a heaping helping of imagination and critical care.  In her OLC Innovate keynote, Maha Bali argues for:

Reimagining [professional] development as ‘fostering imagination’ around central values, not just offering tools and strategies.

The professional and the community development we need most urgently is to talk with students about what they need and want and find ways to collectively imagine how those diverse wants and needs fit together into a coherent whole.  There’s no technology, no system, no model—no cop shit—that will do this for us, even if the rhetoric, the sales pitches, the educelebrities and brands, and some of our instincts tell us otherwise.  This is why focusing development and conversation around uses of strategies means that our work is necessarily incomplete.  Let’s return to Press Press’ manifesto:

We can protect sanctuary by creating a pluralistic social contract of values and ideas to which we all agree. We can protect sanctuary by sharing responsibility to sustain the things we value.

Skyline Writing Center’s Summer Circles

This summer, the Skyline Writing Center has held a series of “Summer Circles,” modeled from the critical care practices that we use during our in-person meetings to build community and talk about issues that are important and figure out how we, in our space, can address them while also becoming comfortable with tension and discomfort both generally and within our group, which is remarkably diverse in all facets, especially since the likelihood of a virtual fall start were always high.  This necessitated asking some big questions—and being asked some big questions of me and the institution—to start:

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These discussions have been interesting and iterative, and they’ve covered a ton of ground, ground that I didn’t think we’d necessarily cover.  But with a group of students, some writing center veterans and some newcomers, and an open conversation, we’ve been able to imaginatively co-plan large parts of the year together, most notably how to meaningfully care for and stay connected and engaged while apart.  Truthfully, we haven’t even talked about numbers or training or pedagogy or the LMS, and those conversations seem far off still. My concern isn’t whether we’ll do 1 session or 1,000 sessions.

I never expected 15, even 20, students to show up during their summer break to talk about writing center, but you never know until you create the conditions.  And, really, that’s the point: as a white, cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied male, I can’t create the sanctuary for my students anymore than I can liberate my students, but I can remove the barriers, help create the conditions, and be a co-equal part of the discussion that helps us ensure a safe, comforting, responsive environment for each student, whatever that means for them.

There’s no magic here, really, but a reminder: create a space, let students talk, listen, and use their experiences to build an environment and community that works for each person in the community.

 

Bricks and Mortar: Building the “Radically Soft” LMS

clouds-top-view-white-viewIn the harried weeks after school closed, schools worked to find ways to move instruction online quickly using the best information and resources they had available.  These shifts weren’t easy, and they aren’t without significant costs.  Hastily built online environments tend to be hard and utilitarian rather than soft and kind, and despite our words and best intentions about putting Maslow before Bloom and centering relationships, there are large parts of current online learning spaces that are dehumanizing.  We might very well blame the LMS we use, which are problematic in so many different ways, but we also need to look at our own pedagogies and practices as exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems inherent in our LMS.  Our actions within the LMS have quite a bit to say about whether the student experience is rooted in utilitarian hardness or radical softness, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which we can move our imperfect LMS experience toward radical softness.

When I talk with students about what they miss about school, their classes aren’t the first thing they mention.  They tend to think about all of the smaller, more fleeting parts of their school experiences that we don’t frequently attend to online. They’re talking about the mortar—the stuff in the middle—that holds the bricks together.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes about how our singular focus on the bricks allows us to pay less attention to the mortar:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

As teachers, we tend to think of classrooms as a center of the universe rather than considering fully how we’re part of much larger constellation of centers across a student’s school day, centers which include the hallway, the library, the lunchroom, the sports practice, and so many others.  As we get better at building online environments, my hope is that we might pay closer attention to thinking about how we can build virtual spaces that move beyond the shell of LMS course, even if that means rethinking the LMS entirely.  Stommel, for his part, thinks about text messages, email, and social media.  One of the things I miss most is the vibrancy of our Writing Center, where students could come together, talk, write, and create together.  This is one of the reasons we’ve continued to meet weekly, and I’d also like to think it’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to have a pretty solid turnout.  Not working to create these in between, liminal spaces would have our students missing large chunks of the school experience.

In anything that we do, however, we need to consider how and why we’re asking students to interact and what potential costs there might be for them to do so.  In other words, the liminal spaces we do create should be sites of resistance; they should come from and be for the margins.  One of the current limitations of the big-name LMS is that it’s built with a certain idealized student in mind: quiet, compliant, algorithmic, but our students are anything but.  How might we sacrifice a little of the order of the LMS to encourage greater choice, authenticity, and even safe dissent?  As teachers, we know we can’t liberate our students—they need to liberate themselves—but part of creating liberatory conditions is helping to build what we Be Oakley calls “sanctuary spaces:”

“These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.  Sanctuary spaces populate outside of public space where ‘the political’ and ‘acts of resistance’ tend to cater to those who have the least to lose.”

Now, in a time where many districts have eliminated grades and standardized tests, we have additional freedom to build “radically soft” online spaces—spaces that imagine a different future together with our students—that will, hopefully, substantially transform the physical spaces we return into more democratic and liberatory.  Our soft online spaces can be sites where students have their identities affirmed, seek justice, and drive equity with their thinking, their words, and their collaboration.  This requires us to attend to the mortar as much as we’ve attended to the bricks, a shift that requires compassion, kindness, and trust.

Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

Coaching Notes: Using Cross-Level Instructional Rounds to Reimagine Math Literacy

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Over the last year, I’ve participated in two cross-level instructional rounds programs through my involvement with the Inquiry into Disciplinary Literacy and Learning (IDLL) network in my county.  At one of our meetings, secondary school teachers attend classes at Eastern Michigan University where professors who have been through the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program are working with their students to build their disciplinary literacy tools.  This year, I attended a mathematics methods course for elementary and middle school teachers focused on statistics.  While math classes tend to be static in my context—answering homework questions from the night before, lecture, and independent practice time—this class was intentionally different, and it helped me and, more importantly, the future teachers in the room, reimagine what math instruction might look like.

Inquiry-Based Approach

 “What statistic or calculation could you use here to determine effect size?  How would you figure out what to do?”

Seeing the questions that students were working through in class was eye-opening: students weren’t working through huge sets of problems with complex calculations, they were being asked to design problems that would help their future students build knowledge through a process.  If you want students to understand how distributions work, have them create multiple data sets and make box plots.  Have students talk about how changes in data leads to changes in distribution.  If you want to understand how effect size functions, look at studies on prescription drug trials to understand why understanding the concept and how it works is important, as is the connection to something beyond the math classroom.  Throughout this process, students were being asked to think about points in the process where their future students might struggle and why; they were being thoughtful about the need to differentiate and to be comfortable with everyone not being at the same place at the same time.  Having students design the problems and think through their processes is critical to develop more inquiry-based math instruction.  At some level, the answer, while important, is also incidental, especially if we believe the old saying that “math is about learning how to think.”  Answers are eventually important, but they won’t matter much unless a student can articulate to another person (or themselves) how they got there.

In the secondary classroom, I could see math classes switching to a short mini-lesson and then having several stations with inquiry problems where students work through different processes that help them continue building their ability to solve complex problems.  Students could present out, or they could record themselves using Flipgrid and share their videos with their classmates. Teachers could even have “Big Debates,” which some of our Social Studies teachers use, on the different processes to use, further reducing the emphasis on correctness and turning the spotlight on meaningful reflection and discussion.

Most math classes I took were highly individualistic, and many of those I observe are currently the same.  Doing this kind of work requires moving away from traditional grading and assessment structures, but it could be well worth it in terms of building students’ mathematical thinking skills.  There’s some group talk—and even group assessment—but it tends to be transactional.  Students need to learn how to have ranging, independent discussions in math that are both reflective and process-oriented.

Talk Moves

“I don’t care about the answer.  Talk to me about your process for getting there.”

The class started with students talking with each other in small groups about the homework from the last class.  Groups quickly assembled and with a command of both math’s academic vocabulary and reflective language, each student was able to carefully and cogently discuss their strategies for solving the inquiry-based problems that they were assigned, and, in my cases, each had a different answer or way of seeing that allowed them to do the work.  The ability to use academic vocabulary in an accessible way to explain a process to someone else is incredibly important in teaching math, and this was great practice for new teachers.  The reflective talk moves were impressive, too, as students were unpacking not only what they did and how they did it, but why it might matter in a classroom, as they worked to identify areas where students would struggle based on the Common Core-based learning progressions they were studying in class.  This became even more apparent in the “Mini Activities” students did throughout the class with breaks for questions and process demonstrations for both the professor and the students using the whiteboard and the document camera.

In talking with the professor, she tries to incorporate these language practices into her instruction so that her students are equipped to do this important work, but, perhaps more importantly, she builds a mathematics space where students can share vulnerability.  In a subject area that relies so much on being right, she’s made it acceptable to be wrong and to revise throughout the process of solving a problem.  The ability to use reflective talk moves rooted in academic language was representative of a powerful pedagogy that helped students sound themselves out through a process, articulating each step and why they did it.  The ability to unpack and discuss a process in a careful, considered way is a hugely important component of teaching mathematics, and being able to share vulnerability throughout can make interaction and instruction more inclusive.

Classes tend to move fast, but it seems worth it for teachers spending time throughout a course on building the academic vocabulary and reflective skills of students, even if it might mean less content.

Conclusion

Some of the professor’s intentional choices in their class are good pedagogy in any content area, like having multiple activities in a 75-minute period that release responsibility to students, but their ability to construct a safe environment where future math teachers can experiment with different processes, practices, and pedagogies was exciting to watch.  It’s important for future math teachers to know their content, but I’m hoping they were also taking notes on the teaching that day, too.

 

Coaching Notes: Reimagining Literacies Through Art-ELA Collaboration

The multiple literacies—visual literacy, maker literacy, reflective literacy—being taught and activated in art classrooms each day make them some of my favorite places to coach.  These disciplinary literacies are one of the reasons that art classes are vital to student success, as they teach ways of thinking and seeing that learners aren’t typically getting elsewhere in their school day.  This is something I may have known or considered, but it’s not something I had ever really seen activated.  Art classes can feel like an outpost, separate from other content areas (even physically in our school), but there would be important benefits for student literacy if there were strategic collaboration between art and the so-called “core” classes, particularly English, my core subject area, as we think about promoting the transfer of important literacy skills and moves across our school for students.  These sorts of cross-discipline learning opportunities have been on my mind, as our school begins an Instructional Rounds pilot for a more comprehensive roll out next year: how do we normalize and encourage this sort of learning?

What English Teachers Can Learn from Art Teachers

“I care more about the message and meaning of your art more than anything else.”
–A Colleague

My core philosophy centers on trusting students—the trusted become trustworthy, as Adrienne Maree Brown concludes—and art classes are some of the most trusting spaces in our schools, as students are given instruction with models, raw materials, and radical choice about their process, materials, and design.  In short, students are embedded in classrooms that center a kind of maker literacy.  Students are consistently making and remaking, they are experimenting without the common worry if what they’re doing is exactly “right.”  What’s made can be unmade; their work is always in beta.  This isn’t the ethos in many English classes, which can, at times, be “over-scaffolded” and prescriptive.  Marcelle Haddix reminds us that, in most cases, students’ competence is rarely ever presumed; they are assumed incompetent until proven otherwise.  That means rather than experimenting—making, unmaking, remaking—there is a top-down approach that stifles.  This might mean several iterations of drafts and a good amount of productive fits and starts, but it also might be the most productive learning experience our students can have, especially as we trust them as experts on themselves and their own learning.

In my Writing Center course, students write autoethnographies about their literacy and writing histories.  Here’s a representative example of a pattern I’ve been seeing, a pattern which has become increasingly dominant:

Upon closer inspection, however, there is another difference that I’ve become aware of; a difference that doesn’t show up in my old writings, but one that nevertheless has become apparent to me…my once-apparent love for reading, writing, and history seems to have dampened somewhat.

In the art classes I’ve observed, I’ve watched teachers honor student literacies through thoughtful, genuine encouragement and value student funds of knowledge even when they haven’t always shared the same knowledge.  Students will tell stories—often personal stories—through their work, and the level of support they receive when sharing vulnerability is a trait we should be actively emulating.  There’s no constricting prompts or tight guidelines, and, from the conversations I’ve heard, this feels fundamentally different from some other parts of their experience, which challenges us to make changes in our instruction that these feelings aren’t isolated to certain parts of the school day or school building.

It’s at the intersection of trust and respect where we see the power of maker literacy in our art classes and how it might be extended across curriculums and schools: students are learning how to think through their own changing interpretations about the world and their place in it rather than following along with narrow interpretations, remix and adapt the thoughts and techniques of others to say something meaningful for authentic audiences rather than producing solely for grades for a standardized test, and how to extend these skills across different media and platforms rather to being confined to a single output, like a five-paragraph essay.   What I’ve seen students do in art with some fairly basic tools and every day materials is nothing short of incredible; it’s critical thinking at the highest possible levels.  I’m taking the maker literacy ethos I’ve learned from my art colleagues with me in my coaching across the curriculum.

What Art Teachers Can Learn from English Teachers

If art teachers have the ethos, we might say that English teachers can provide the literacy frameworks that can help build or reinforce certain skills.  This isn’t to say that art teachers (or teachers in any other discipline) lack literacy pedagogy, especially in their disciplines, but ELA teachers often have the kinds of specialized training to put key literacy skills into action, make them tenable and tangible.  Put simply, we want students to be able to activate key literacy skills in a choice-based, trust-rich environment.  If I had my wish, I’d co-teach with an art teacher for a term because the results could be powerful.

My latest coaching experience in an art class came about. because my colleague is having students write artist’s statements for their work, which is an awesome way to build student metacognition about process, but they needed some support helping students understand and activate the skills necessary to do this level of work.  Part of my coaching centered on the sequencing of instruction, and another part of my coaching looked at practices that could help teach students what it means to analyze, interpret, and evaluate, as these are distinct moves.  While I knew commonalities existed, I had to respect that analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating might look a little different in the art room than they did in ELA room.  ELA teachers sometimes think these are “our” moves, and they are, but they have shared ownership and multiple meanings depending on discipline and context.

In the sequencing of instruction, we focused on getting students to move from seeing a piece of art, a sculpture in this case, to generating a list of what they notice, to sorting through their observations and starting to make meaning from them both in writing and conversation.  The process is very similar to Rosenwasser and Stephen’s “Notice and Focus” method in Writing Analytically.  Students had time to look at Karon Davis’ Muddy Water sculpture and collect their thoughts, then they were given two minutes to record every observation they had—whether it was about materials or composition or even some overarching theme considerations—on separate sticky notes, and then they were given time to sort through their observations, considering what stuck out to them.  From there, students engaged in some conversation with their tablemates about what they chose and why, maybe it was interesting or strange or revealing or problematic.  Had there been additional time, we had talked about doing a Harkness Discussion in a way that may have even made the discussion more robust, but the reality is that time isn’t always on our side.

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Following their conversation, students slotted their sticky noted into where they fit in the critique method that the teacher was using, and students were able to talk about why they put their sticky notes in certain spaces, which gave my colleague an opportunity to do some formative assessment on how students were thinking about describing, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating.  The discussion, which was open-ended, generated content for each move that students would have to make, and provided a generative model for them to do their own work.  This high-level discussion was, in part, made possible by the way the lesson was sequenced, which allowed students to generate ideas, test those ideas, and share them with a broader audience.  It also helped that the teacher wasn’t searching for “right” answers or having students play a guessing game about what they were thinking, the maker ethos was maintained throughout, but the process of noticing, discussing, and debriefing did help foster important conversations about what this process of metacognitive reflection looks like and what skills are needed to do the work.  This process provided students with the necessary prewriting to create strong artist statements.

Final Thoughts

When we combine the foundational literacy pedagogies of ELA teachers and the maker pedagogies of our art teachers, a powerful set of classroom practices start to emerge that are authentic and engaging, as we’re valuing what students know and their natural curiosity while helping them understand how to best use their knowledge and wonder to reflect on their work and express themselves to external audiences.